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Friday 6 December 2013

FFB – The Ladies’ Paradise

The popular BBC television series, now in its second season, The Paradise, is based on this book by Emil Zola. First published in French as Au Bonheur des Dames in 1883, it is in fact the eleventh novel in his series, The Rougon-Macquart Cycle, which in twenty volumes depicts two branches, one legitimate (Rougon), one illigitimate (Macquart), of a family from Plassans, a town in the south of France, considered to be Zola’s fictionalised version of his home Aix-en-Provence. In its wider context, it’s also the story about the period of France’s Second Empire, the authoritarian regime of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon III (1850s-1870s).

The Ladies’ Paradise encapsulates in luxurious detail the new phenomenon of consumer society – obsessed with image, fashion and instant gratification, laying bare the department store in 1860s Paris. Octave Mouret is a business genius who transforms a modest draper’s shop into a hugely successful retail enterprise, masterfully exploiting the desires of his female customers and ruining small businesses in the process. Sound familiar?

Through the eyes of trainee salesgirl Denise, we see the inner workings of the store and the relations and intrigues among the staff, human dramas played out alongside the relentless pursuit of profit. The various characters find themselves torn between the conflicting forces of love, loyalty and ambition. (Arthur Hailey did something similar with his books in the 1960s and 1970s [Hotel, Airport, Wheels, Moneychangers, Overload etc]; surprisingly, he never examined a department store; maybe he’d thought it had been done so well by Zola!)

Zola evokes the giddy pace of Paris’ transition into a modern city and the changes in sexual attitudes and class relations that were occurring in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Not lost in translation

I bought two versions of the book as Christmas presents. Interestingly, the translations differ, which is to be expected. The job of a translator is not to literally transcribe word-for-word from one language to another; indeed, that’s impossible, because different cultures have different idioms, phrases and even several meanings for certain words. In the new language, there must be a constant battle between accurate translation and narrative flow.

Here you’ll find the opening two paragraphs from Chapter One. You might like to note the subtle changes employed by the translators. Doubtless, a third translator would opt for another slight variant. Either could appear as a draft version in English – certainly, some authors would vary their prose to this degree, striving for clarity and style.

The Ladies’ Paradise, translation April Fitzlyon, 1957,2008: Alma Classics, 2012.
Denise had come on foot from Saint-Lazare station where, after a night spent on the hard bench of a third-class carriage, she and her two brothers had been set down by a train from Cherbourg. She was holding Pepe’s hand, and Jean was following her; they were all three aching from the journey, scared and lost in the midst of the vast city of Paris. Noses in the air, they were looking at the houses, and at each cross-road they asked the way to the Rue de la Michodiere where their Uncle Baudu lived. But, just as she was finally emerging into the Place Gaillon, the girl stopped short in surprise.
            “Oh!” she said. “Just have a look at that, Jean!”

The Ladies’ Paradise, translation Brian Nelson, 1995: Oxford University Press, 2012
Denise had come on foot from the Gare Saint-Lazsare. She and her two brothers had arrived on a train from Cherbourg and had spent the night on the hard bench of a third-class carriage. She was holding Pepe by the hand, and Jean was walking behind her, all three exhausted from the journey, frightened and lost in the midst of the vast city of Paris. They kept looking up at the houses, and at every intersection they asked the way to the Rue de la Michodiere, where their uncle Baudu lived. But on arriving in the Place Gaillon, the young girl suddenly stopped in surprise.
            “Oh!” she said, “look at that, Jean!”

In a later blog, I'll look at other books that have been translated. The world of reading is a richer place thanks to translators. I will also write about the book of the film (TV series)...


Jan Warburton said...

I so enjoyed reading this article.
BBC's "The Paradise" is probably my favourite drama series on TV at present... and I'm so delighting in this second series. The shop settings and costumes are so exquisite, right down to the departmental staff's elegant dresses. The dialogue and acting is superb, as opposed to the rather wooden script and stiff acting of a number of the characters in "Downton Abbey".
We really do "period" here so well and the adaption from the original Emile Zola book has been tasteful and masterfully done, transferring it cleverly to a Northern English Town. I'm only sorry it hasn't openly received the true credit it deserves and has been overshadowed in some ways by the vast amount of popularity hype that "Downton" has always received. Likewise "Mr Selfridge" also received more advanced promotion when it had its first run. "The Paradise" somehow just arrived on our screens with very little announcement and previewing.
The main characters Denise and Moray in "The Paradise" have been so delightfully well portrayed, and while occasionally various "goings on" in the store are a little far-fetched, for me anyway, it nontheless suspends disbelief enough to still enjoy them immensely.
I sincerely hope there will be yet another series after this one ends.

Nik Morton said...

Thanks,Jan. We're watching season one on DVD, and have season two still to watch eventually. I'm reading the book at present. The script is an excellent adaptation, changing much, yet retaining the essence of the story and characters.